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Security Issues Raised for U.S. Commuter and Intercity Trains

Friday's foiled attempt by an alleged terrorist to massacre civilians on a Paris-bound, high-speed Thalys train has raised fears that a similar attack could be launched on one of America's lesser-speed trains. Are current security measures adequate?
August 26, 2015, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Unlike airports, which are guarded with multiple layers of security — including airport police and Transportation Security Administration [TSA] personnel operating metal detectors and full-body scanners — most railroad stations have minimal scrutiny for those boarding train," writes Ron Nixon for The New York Times.

True, larger stations, like Penn Station in Manhattan and Union Station in Washington "have armed Amtrak police officers, often with bomb-sniffing dogs" performing safety and security measures, including random searches of passengers and baggage, writes Nixon. Amtrak Police number 500 officers. 

The August 21 first alleged terrorist attempt by Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national who lived in Spain, was hardly the first example of train terrorism—though it may be first such attempt averted by the actions of passengers. Nixon points to:

  • Mumbai, India killing of 190 on seven commuter trains 2008.
  • London 2005:  "Four coordinated bomb attacks tore apart subway trains and a bus in central London, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more."
  • Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004.

Nixon describes TSA's "Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, squads, assigned to patrol transportation hubs such as train and bus stations." In a 2013 article, Nixon wrote that VIPR was started in 2005 after the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people.

Still, security experts say trains remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks. A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security found security gaps at many Amtrak stations. Congress and security experts have long debated whether to institute screening systems at railroad stations similar to those at airports, but plans have gone nowhere — largely because of cost and resistance from passengers.

Nixon notes that "frustrations with airport screenings" has led to increased patronage of Acela high-speed train between New York and Washington, amounting to 75 percent of corridor travel. Prior to September 112001, when airport security became rigorous, the share was a third.

Amtrak allows firearms on trains, a result of a 2009 policy change posted here. However, they must be in checked baggage and packed accordingly.

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Published on Saturday, August 22, 2015 in The New York Times - U.S.
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